Letters from readers about
Tienda and affirmative action
April 25, 2003
I find it strange that one problem of affirmative action
that Mr. Vacano seems to have forgotten in his letter
is the obvious fact that it clearly is reverse discrimination and for
every "minority" kid that is eased in, some totally innocent
"majority" kid is eased out.
Remember that each applicant is a minority of one. With
the sense of narcisism and victimization that minorities bring to the
table, there is no reason why this should trouble them.
of Sociology Marta Tienda presented a defense of affirmative action
on April 1, 2003. While compelling in many respects and certainly
lively the exposition did not question the ultimate value of affirmative
As a Latino person who has partially benefited from affirmative action,
I believe I can attest to the problems affirmative action has as it is
now generally understood in national policy debates. Although I used to
believe that affirmative action was a good way to correct the social ills
of our society, it has become clear to me that affirmative action has
three fundamental problems.
The first problem is that it can often become mere 'tokenism.' Owing to
the fact that many institutions-including educational ones- have very
thin affirmative action policies such as merely "encouraging minority
members to apply" for positions, their thinness only leads to a token
minority presence in such institutions.
The second problem is that it has tended to be used to benefit only particular
segments of the underrepresented group. While Latinas (as members of the
largest US ethnic minority group) and African Americans women (as a historically
oppressed group) are arguably the most in need of redress, institutions
have often opted to consistently confer the benefits of affirmative action
to other subgroups, such as white or Asian American women.
The third problem has to do with academic institutions at the graduate
level. While much of the discussion of affirmative action centers on how
to make campuses more diverse, graduate students of color often find themselves
pigeon-holed as specialists of 'minority issues.' For one reason or another,
both at the graduate level and in academic positions, minority scholars
are expected (or even assumed) to focus on topics that relate to their
ethnic background. This creates a pressure that essentially leads to a
'ghetto-ization' of the academy. Minority scholars are pressured by institutional
forces to study minority issues. This does not allow for a varied presence
of minorities across different branches of learning.
Taken together, these three problems, particularly in academic settings,
really do undermine the actual benefits of affirmative action as it is
generally understood. The fact is that affirmative action has had very
mixed results especially at the highest (academic) levels and must now
be radically reconsidered or discarded as an approach to social reform.
Schools like Princeton have reason to pride themselves in their advances
over the last three decades, yet we are far from a truly egalitarian society.
New methods have to be developed to achieve this ideal.